Monday, April 26, 2010

The Most Sacred Cow of All

I will ask the reader to read the following very carefully. There are so many assumptions about Christian meetings and such, that it is easy to line ourselves up in two groups: status quo, and anarchist. There is a third way, and yes, it is radical, but... well, just read on:

We must break the “scheduled weekly meeting” paradigm. This is a profound step for the religious, the sacrificial killing of the Christian Sabbath. This reality was pointed out to me some years ago, and I spent ten years arguing that our existing weekly meetings were not a bad thing in and of themselves, and could be reformed, renewed, and made to work. I am now convinced that I was wrong, and that I was hanging on simply because of tradition and a lack of any alternative vision. Changing the day of the week for the meeting does not help. If we decide to meet on Tuesday night, we will adapt—but not escape—our past patterns. Believers can accept almost any other change of activity: we can stop doing sermons, passing the plate, and meeting on Sunday morning. We can handle meeting in a house, not having a “pastor”, even having our group have no name. But discarding the scheduled weekly group meeting is so beyond the pale to most Christians that it begs the question: Who made the scheduled weekly meeting the linchpin of our Christian existence? How did we move from being identified by Jesus to being identified by our meetings? How did we move from being part of “the church” to being part of “our church”?

What challenges can we expect when we discard the regular weekly meeting? We can expect this move to be very revealing… and likely traumatic. When the Gospel came to the Jews, there was a backlash in some of them. Paul had to correct those who would turn their liberty to license, or who would feel free to sin “that grace may abound”. Other believers received the grace of Jesus with overpowering gratitude and the Spirit led them into lives of dedication and sacrifice that could never have been imagined under the character of law. In a very real way, our modern weekly meeting is rooted in the character of law to such a degree that we will not see its fruit until we get a safe viewing distance. Expect the abandonment of scheduled meetings to do several things:

It will reveal our hearts. If we were touching one another because of our love for one another, we will morph into new paradigms of connecting. If our participation in regular meetings is rooted in something else, we will find ourselves isolated, or at the least seeing much of our current fellowship wither. Too often, believers are together because of religious habit, a desire for doctrinal reinforcement, a sense of duty to the organization, or a need to be validated as Christians by their activities. Even positive things like the need to be fed and encouraged, or the desire to minister, if they are the primary reason for our attendance, will be revealed as a centering on self, and a dependence upon men, rather than Jesus.

It will expose the nature of our relationships. If our connection to other believers is grounded in common activity, losing that activity will break the connection. And we will soon look for others to whom we can relate on this shallow level. But if we have—or desire to have—actual relationship with our brothers and sisters, we will reorder our lives to pursue this. Relationship takes time and effort, far more time and effort than organizing and attending meetings.

It will create a time vacuum that begs to be filled, and will be filled by something. There is a strong temptation to fill that “meeting time”-- either to replace it with another “good” activity or to resist doing anything with it at all, and thus allowing the cares of this world to expand even further in our lives. It is a golden opportunity to be led by the Spirit instead of the schedule, but this must be pursued intentionally.

Can we even have a healthy “regularly-scheduled meeting”? I think the answer is a qualified “Yes”, but with a number of important observations:

I think meetings are to most Christians like a bar is to most alcoholics. And before you become too offended, consider the parallel. Once an addict realizes his dependency on alcohol to help manage his life, he finds that the first thing he must do is to put down the bottle. But this is only the beginning. Of primary importance is that he now sets his purpose to reordering his life. Remember, it is not so much the alcohol use itself that he must deal with, but the facets of his life that he managed with its assistance. During this period of reorientation, one keeps alcohol completely away from the addict. There is a shrieking void in the addict’s life that could be easily filled with a shot and a beer, so we shield the addict from that path. We essentially set a guardrail between him and this self-destructive answer to his life’s issues. And that guardrail is valuable until such a time as he strongly rejects alcohol as a valid life-management tool. When the now-former addict reaches this point, the guardrail can be safely replaced with simple markers, which do not bar the man from properly using alcohol, but which clearly remind him of its hazards.

The Christian can find himself in much the same paradigm. When I awake to the reality that I have ordered my spiritual life around meetings rather than around Christ himself, I know I have to back away from the meetings. But, while some Christian meetings do more harm than good, the quality of the meeting itself is not generally the issue. The Holy Spirit must reveal to me what I have been seeking from the meeting instead of seeking from Him. Identity, teaching, validity of our gifts and callings, worship or a devotional life—all these are facets of our spirit life that we may seek in meetings rather than in Christ.

So, I seek to reorder my life in the pursuit of God. And in this reorientation process, I avoid that to which I had addicted myself as I allow the Holy Spirit to fill the voids in my life as he wills. At this point, I avoid a commitment to meetings as the drunk shuns the honky-tonk. I press into Him who is my life to meet the needs of my heart. When my life is redirected in this path, I reject the very idea that men or their activities can validate my identity in Christ. I am a believer based on nothing more than him upon whom I have believed. This position in the Spirit frees me to touch meetings of the brothers in a pure way, to give and receive wholly of the Spirit. I can come and go among the church as freely as the resurrected Jesus passed through the walls of the upper room.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Martha R Us

Luke 10:38-42 says:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Martha tells Jesus how busy she is, and how much there is to do, and He replies, “You are worried and upset about many things.” If he said that to us, we would take it as a compliment. “Yes, Lord, you know how it is. SO much to do! I’m in charge of the bake sale and I’m on the pastor search committee, and we’re remodeling the living room. If you would just get Mary off her… well, get her to come and help me. Then we could really serve you!”

I love the language in the exchange between Martha and Jesus. You see Martha’s assumption and cluelessness, and Jesus’ gentleness. I love this exchange because it sounds so much like us.

“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” Listen to the assumption behind Martha’s question: “There are important people here. They need to be fed, housed, tended to. My house needs to be cleaned, ordered and made suitable for Jesus! There is no time for sitting and talking right now. We have to get busy and serve the Lord! Don’t you get it, Lord?”

The assumption is so strong that it even leads Martha into a bizarre foolishness. In her first sentence, she calls Jesus “Lord”, and in the second sentence she actually commands him to do something about Mary. The reality is that the task at hand was truly lord of the moment. Serving the Lord took precedence over the Lord himself.

The question Martha does not ask: “Why is Jesus here in the first place?”

I hear unspoken things in Jesus that He wants Martha to work out for herself. “Do I care that Mary has left what everyone expects of her to be still and listen to me? Do I care that she has incurred your disrespect and anger to do so? Yes, I care very much about that. And I will reward her for it.”

Martha, did you realize that you are actually trying to rob your sister of her blessing, to get her to follow you, instead of following me? Well, it’s not going to happen today.”

Note that Jesus does not tell Martha to stop doing what she’s doing. Most often, telling one of us to stop “serving the Lord” is to give an instruction we will never heed. We are like a dog chasing a car at a dead run. The Master’s whistle does not call us back. Only when the car has sped out of sight do we stop and trudge back to the yard. Then, we may get an opportunity to hear our Lord.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Measuring sticks?

I'm contemplating how we continually, even unconsciously, measure things in the kingdom. A friend talks about getting up at 5 AM to pray each morning-- and this is taken as a measure of piety. I write a check to a charity-- and it measures generosity. A thousand people attend the club down the street-- which is a measure of success and of the favor of God. A man confesses horrible sins from his past, and we see him as a more impressive work of redemption than we find in his neighbor. A sister extensively quotes scripture from memory, so this is a measure of respect for scripture and of the validity of her beliefs.

Immediate question: why are we performing these measurements?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sailing Stones

I stumbled across a letter written years ago to a dear friend who is an elder in the city. He has probably long forgotten it. It speaks to me still.

Dear Charlie,

It’s more radical that we think.

To those of us who have been long exposed to the idea of the church in the city, it is simple logic. Explaining the concept confounds us. It is like asking my young son David, “How do you throw a rock?” David looks at you in amazement, picks up a rock and says, “Like this!” and throws it. Not only is no further explanation necessary, it would require some skill to develop one.

See it, recognize it, do it.

Describe the church in the city to someone with no religious background, and they grasp it readily. But try to share the reality with a traditional, church-going Christian, and it can actually traumatize them at first. Go back to my little boy with the rock. My friend John is walking along with us. All his life, he has been surrounded by rocks. Rocks are a part of his life experience. He walks on them in the road, sees them mortared into walls, arranges them neatly in his Japanese garden. But he has been told all his life that rocks belong on the ground. That is where they come from, that is where they go. Every time he ever picked one up and dropped it, it returned immediately to its rightful position snuggled against the planet’s surface. John takes no little comfort in the eternal certainty of the place of rocks in his universe. It never occurred to John that a rock could fly through the air. Birds fly. Rocks do not fly.

Then a little boy with no significant experience with rocks breaks the rule. A mere child, who knows nothing of roadbeds and flagstone paths, of rock gardens or stone walls; a lad who has never seen the pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall, takes a rock and sails it through the air.

John actually breathes a sigh of relief when the rock lands in the road ahead. “That’s more like it,” he thinks to himself, “I knew that’s where that rock belonged.” But David is now enthralled with the flight of the rock. So he picks up another and hurls it. A little more arc, and a bit more distance this time. Another rock, and yet another sails through the summer afternoon.

“David, stop that!” John finally says in exasperation. “Leave the rocks in the road where they belong.” And the boy, respectful of his elders as I want him to be, leaves his rock-throwing. At least until John goes home. But somehow I do not believe the little boy has yet been created who ever lost his fascination with throwing rocks… adult approval or no.

David knows stones can fly because he is involved in making it so. The fact that they come back to earth does not dissuade him. There is always another one nearby. Another stone flight into space is only as far away as the end of his arm.

Unlike Jesus, I cannot resist explaining the parable. My friend John is the traditional Christian, who grew up, as his fathers before him, belonging to a church; following and paying its pastor, and finding his service to God within its walls. Everyone in his acquaintance did the same thing. They had different churches, but they were really all the same. They operated in the same way, has the same requirements of their members, held the same place in the community. It never occurred to John that they could do more, be more. John is a stone nestled comfortably in the earth, where all self-respecting stones should be.

David is one of those lively stones. They can go where they have never been, and come to rest again. They are more than just pieces of the earth. They are solid, but they are not stuck. These Christians come to rest where the Master throws them, some near, some far. Some in great pile of stones, some in solitary places. They are fitted together only by His hand.

John is distressed by this vision. He sees chaos where order should reign. He envisions a cloud of stones flying like driven hail. This cannot be allowed! What will happen to the road, the walls, his house if stones are allowed to fly? Please, please, put them down and leave them on the ground before someone gets hurt. Fear rules. John certainly cannot trust a little boy with such things. A mature stone mason might have the credibility to change John’s mind about stones, but such men spend their lives cementing stones into walls of their own design. Their stones will not, cannot ever fly.

Charlie, you are a boy who knows the stones can fly. You were blessed to be raised by spiritual, rather than religious, men. They never built the stones into their own walls. You have also walked with men who did just that, men who hoped you would become foundation material for their own houses. But that is not to be. And for that, I thank God! Know that you will create opposition without intending to do so, and be content. Be patient and love the brothers, even those who oppose you. Stand where God calls you to stand.

As elders in the city, as under-shepherds to the Chief Shepherd, one of our challenges is to resist divvying up the flock among ourselves. Sometimes that means correcting a fellow-laborer who is discreetly placing his own marks on the Master’s sheep. In a religious society where authority often comes from how many sheep bear your mark, it takes courage to refuse to own the sheep and to challenge that practice based only on our relationship to the Shepherd.

I am reminded more and more as my natural and religious resume gets well and thoroughly trashed, that the only authority I ever had was in Him. I used to be somebody in my own eyes, and had the track record to prove it. Now, about all I have is what He has done in me. I think that’s a good thing, but my soul has not caught up with it just yet.

We have a sacred trust to present a pure virginal bride, not one who has been married to us first while waiting for the Bridegroom. Do not be discouraged. If you can imagine the King of Glory being grateful to people like us, think of His response to the elders of a church who belongs purely and only to Him.

Charles Rolland